Making Most Beautiful Island was my first time writing a script and directing a film.

Up to this point in my career, I had focused on acting and producing my theatrical one-woman shows. As a film lover, I had been watching great auteur filmmakers and studying those films on my own for many years, but was unaware, until trying to make my own film, of the depth and breadth of the art form. Making Most Beautiful Island was an ambitious adventure that taught me many lessons along the way—some of them painful, and all of them necessary.

In the fall of 2011, I asked my long time friend and cinematographer Noah Greenberg to shoot a teaser for Most Beautiful Island. I wanted to shoot one scene as both a proof-of-concept for my vision, and also as a sales tool for prospective financiers and producers that I hoped to involve in the project. It had been almost a year since I had completed the first draft of the screenplay and begun searching for financing. I was certain that a visual aid would help immensely with my pitch.

It was always my intent to shoot Most Beautiful Island handheld, on film, with a very documentary/voyeuristic approach. I was interested in the notion of the camera as an active observer. I trusted Noah to follow the action and find the expressive angle, the important detail, and to follow his instincts on when to move with me or to hold back—knowing that we both love the negative spaces and quiet moments within a scene that build tension.

Writer-director/lead actor Ana Asensio directs cast and crew on the set of Most Beautiful Island. Photograph courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films and Orion Pictures

Initially, I was also convinced that each scene needed to be done in one take—that this would lead necessarily to an intimacy and tension that an edited squence could not. We shot the teaser scene as one long, fluid, eight-minute take in my Brooklyn Heights apartment—following Luciana (whom I play in the film) from the hallway outside her apartment, into the kitchen, through the livingroom and, finally, into the bathroom for her disturbing bath scene. It was shot with just us and two friends helping with art and props. It was challenging to do this as an actor, but also technically challenging, as all four rooms had to be lit consistently looking 360 degrees, and, since I end up naked in the bathtub, all of the audio had to be done with wireless plant mics.

It worked beautifully as one take, but as we began to play with it, I found that it had more energy and tension with a few key edits. That first directing experince proved to me that my single-shot concept was solid, and something that I wanted to pursue, but also opened me up to editing in the form of jump cuts, which we employed in the feature.

In late 2014, we finally were able to begin shooting Most Beautiful Island. The plan was to have two very distinctive halves of the film, differentiated not only by the narrative shift, but also in the camera work. In the first half of the film, in which we are meeting Luciana and learning about her, we wanted to shoot in a documentary style, embracing available light and filming the majority of the scenes in one continuous take. We also wanted to embrace the city as a character, and to welcome the crazy, unpedictable energy of the streets. Having very little control over our shooting environment was of course a blessing and a curse; often we would run into problems because someone would block our shot, or a bus with a big logo on it would show up in the middle of a take. Also, as the film takes place in such a short, linear time frame, lighting continuity was a continuous challenge. At the same time, we were often surprised with moments of real-life unfolding around us that framed (and elevated) our staged scenes.

One example of this was the scene in Chinatown where Luciana wanders the streets looking for the address given to her by Olga. We were just a skeleton crew composed of the sound mixer, the first AD, Noah and his camera assistants. The acting and the camerawork were both totally improvised. Neither I (nor my character) knew which direction to take, so I just started running, then stopped to ask random pedestrians for help, wandered some more, stopped again, until finally finding the location—all of this without a camera rehearsal or a real idea of what exactly was going to happen.

It was really fun… for me. As an actor, I felt so free just being in the moment, discovering things and embracing those spontaneous decisions. For the crew, it was a little more stressful. They had to run after me, stop suddenly, and hide among the crowd to shoot in a purely journalistic style. I remember talking with Noah after we wrapped. He said that it was thrilling for him to just follow and kind of mind-meld with me, thinking about what I might do and where I might go and choreographing the camera movements accordingly. But, the whole time he was thinking about how much film was left on the magazine, worring that it might run out before we were “done,” and whether his ACs and the sound mixer were keeping up. In retrospect, I guess it was a little crazy—running wild through Chinatown without a plan—but we really got amazing footage.

The second half of the film begins when Luciana arrives at the “party.” From that point forward, the tone and the camerawork shift dramatically. The lighting becomes much more stylized and formal, and, while the camera is still handheld and favors longer exploratory takes, there is also more traditional coverage woven in throughout. We only had five days to shoot the second half of the film. Fortunately, it was all in one location. We had a couple of days to prep/pre-light the space and turn the raw warehouse into the creepy basement I had imagined. Discussing with Noah and Chad how to approach the lighting, we agreed that it was key to find something warm and flattering, yet realistic in that kind of space. It was a particular challenge, as the walls were white, the space not that large, and the camera needed the freedom to look nearly 360 degrees for every shot. Noah and Chad struck upon the notion of a soft, pretty top light for the ladies in the semicircle, and then practical fixtures to illuminate the surrounding walls which would leave the clientele mostly in and eerie, shadowy relief. It was an elegant solution and kept us moving very quickly, as we just needed little tweaks for the close-ups.

Asensio as Luciana in Most Beautiful Island

We created a detailed shot list along with a story board in pre-production, but found ourselves re-imaging the shots on the fly in the final space. It was a fascinating process finding the balance between that very improvisational feel of the camera—letting it breathe, finding the moments and focus on the fly—while covering long static shots with many characters speaking. The majority of the action in the basement happens within a semicircle of nine women who don’t move at all. In a way, the restrictions that Luciana  is facing in the space were also reflected in the restrictions the camera was facing – being trapped in her perspective. It was scary yet fascinating problem.

I was fortunate enough to assemble a team with more experience than me. I had been on film shoots as an actress, but I had never been on the other side of the camera. Our producer Larry Fessenden, who also plays the role of Rudy, was a kind and generous mentor for me from day one. When we ran into a complication on set we would all gather around: Jenn Wexler, Chadd Harbold, Peter Phok, Larry, Noah and myself, to discuss how to creativately resolve the issue and move forward as fast as possible. This was always a very open and generous approach with all of them; always allowing me to have the last word. I felt like they were always there for me, protecting me, yet not imposing anything upon me. Even when they thought I was wrong about something, they would just politely mention it to me. And, in the cases when I was stubborn enough to pursue it anyway, they were always on my side. Working with minimal resources, being exhausted and often cold, somehow brought us all together in this at times quixotic adventure that was the shooting of Most Beautiful Island.

Looking back at this whole journey, one of the most best lessons I learned was in the editing room, when, nearly in tears, I had to cut entire scenes from the film. I hadn’t yet realized that this was a normal and necessary part of the process; and, every time we cut a shot, I thought of the time and money it took us to shoot the scene and of the actors’ now-wasted efforts. That angst initially clouded my judgement and forced me to keep shots out of guilt. Eventually, however, I came around and became pretty ruthless about pairing down to the essentials that would most efficiently tell Luciana’s story and help articulate her world. As I move forward, now writing my second script, I think of those moments in the editing room—editing more carefully and efficiently in my head as I write, being vigilant about keeping the characters and storyline tightly focused. Out of the many lessons I learned while making my first film, I think this has been the most valuable. MM

Most Beautiful Island opened in theaters November 3, 2017, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films and Orion Pictures.